The U.S. Justice Department has agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a lawsuit by an INS agent in Los Angeles who says he has been subjected to more than two-dozen internal investigations in 10 years because he is Latino.
The government decided to settle the case after a federal jury found that officials of the office of the inspector general--an internal watchdog agency within the Justice Department--illegally forced their way into the home of Agent Jorge Guzman in September 1996 while looking for a nanny suspected of being an illegal immigrant.
The investigators said they entered with the occupants' permission, but the jury rejected the government argument after a weeklong trial earlier this month.
The case has cast a harsh light on the little-publicized operations of the inspector general's office, created in 1989 to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Justice personnel in several agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In effect, the inspector general serves as the in-house guardian of department integrity.
This marks the first case nationwide in which the inspector general's office has been found to have committed a constitutional violation, said Paul K. Martin, spokesman for Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich.
The spurious nanny allegation is one of more than 30 contrived offenses that have sparked internal inquiries against him, along with separate investigations of his siblings and his father, Guzman said.
"It was an inquisition," Guzman, 39, a 12-year INS veteran, said Wednesday of the years of living under a cloud. "It's very Kafkaesque. It's a hellish nightmare, to tell you the truth."
The INS agent has been investigated for everything from alleged theft of seized cash and jewels to associating with narcotics traffickers to drinking alcohol while on duty to having an affair with a female co-worker during working hours, said Guzman and his attorney, David G. Spivak of Los Angeles. Co-workers and people in other federal agencies were periodically informed of the allegations, Guzman said, ensuring that his reputation suffered irreparable harm.
Guzman said the incident at his Glendale home in 1996 was an "invasion" by armed, plainclothes agents at a time when he was away but his 20-month-old daughter was home with the nanny and Guzman's sister, Veronica. An inspector general officer, Joe Castaneda, allegedly fondled the nanny and made sexual advances, according to the complaint. Castaneda, now retired, denied the allegation.
Veronica Guzman later said that she was afraid the agents were criminals seeking revenge on her brother.
"I was scared to death that this could have been the last minute of my life," the sister said in a sworn statement. "I have often heard my relatives discuss the possibility that the criminals my brother has arrested may eventually attempt to retaliate against him."
The sister and the nanny were co-plaintiffs with Guzman in his federal lawsuit.
The constant investigations, Guzman said, have short-circuited his career, left him and his family shattered, and cost a small fortune in legal bills.
Despite the array of supposed wrongdoing, Guzman said he was never reprimanded, and was even promoted in 1997. He now earns $100,000 as head of a group of INS investigators overseeing organized crime and drug enforcement cases. Yet, to this day, Guzman has yet to be formally cleared of most allegations, said David Ross, a senior partner in the firm that represented Guzman.
Although it agreed to pay $400,000, the Justice Department admits no wrongdoing, as is standard in such settlements. The settlement, signed off by both sides, awaits the approval of U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird in Los Angeles.
Officials of the inspector general's office in Washington and California declined to comment on the case. However, Martin, the inspector general's spokesman, denied that the agency targets anyone based on race, gender or ethnicity.
But Guzman, who emigrated at the age of 3 with his family from Mexico to California, said he is convinced that bias is behind what he calls a witch hunt. He alleged the existence of pervasive anti-Latino sentiments in the inspector general's office and the INS, especially among old-line officers in high positions. As a senior supervisory agent, Guzman is one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the INS' Los Angeles district.
During the trial, Robert J. Harvey, a non-Latino INS agent, testified that Harold Wieland, second in command of the inspector general's Los Angeles office, had sought Harvey's aid in 1989 with an investigation of Guzman and two other Latino INS agents suspected of theft. Harvey said Wieland told him that all Latinos were corrupt and that the three needed to be stopped before they were promoted.
Wieland, in his testimony, denied making any such statement.
Steve Turchek, head of the inspector general's Los Angeles field office and Wieland's direct supervisor, declined to comment.
As part of the settlement, Guzman agreed to drop pending complaints of discrimination and other alleged violations by the government.